University College London

London College Discovers That Aruba Networks Wi-Fi Is as Easy to Deploy as Fitting a Plug

For universities, like so many other organisations, providing good Wi-Fi coverage for users’ own devices (BYOD) is now a must. Without it, students may vote with their fees and study elsewhere. But adding Wi-Fi to existing buildings – and to student residences in particular – can be a tough task, requiring building permits and causing extensive disruption to the residents.

Yet at historic University College London (UCL), the task of covering some 4000 student rooms in halls scattered across the city was achieved in just a few weeks and with minimal disturbance. That’s all thanks to the right choice of hardware: the AP93H access point from Aruba Networks – a compact multifunction device which combines dual-band Wi-Fi with Ethernet sockets and a small network switch, all in something the size of a smoke alarm.

Mike Turpin, UCL’s Head of Network Services, says that the project was a long time coming, but once it finally happened, Aruba’s support and innovative hardware enabled his team to collapse a three-year project into just one summer. “A lot of student devices only have wireless now, such as tablets and phones, and also they were comparing our halls and services with those at other universities,” he explains. “So we had realised we needed to go wireless for some time, the problem was that the funding wasn’t there – it’s a fair sum of money.”

Our contractor installed the AP93H so fast in our two priority halls that we had 400 rooms done in just over a week.
Mike Turpin, Head of Network Services, UCL Information Services Division

Then by happy coincidence, three important things occurred fairly close together. The first was the arrival of a new Provost, or university director, who recognised the urgent need for Wi-Fi in the halls, especially since UCL had received a poor rating for IT services in a national student survey – and as Turpin points out, “that’s a competitive point these days.”

The second was the opening of one new hall of residence and the refurbishment of another, both of which therefore needed modern Internet coverage in a hurry. And the third was meeting Aruba at a conference, shortly after learning about the AP93H, which enabled Turpin to start building a relationship with the company and get the project moving fast.

The challenge that Turpin’s team faced was that while the halls of residence had been flood-wired years ago with Ethernet, so students could plug in their PCs, the sockets were only in the rooms. After all, why would anyone need an Ethernet socket in the hallway? Yet the hallway was exactly where they would need a socket if they were to provide Wi-Fi the same way they provided it in the teaching and office areas, with traditional large access points (APs).

The AP93H was ideal because it avoided all the cabling and installation that the big AP route would have taken. “These are faceplate access points – they are a straight swap for the existing socket, plus as well as the Wi-Fi radios they have a four-port switch and a pass-through Ethernet socket,” Turpin explains. They are also Power-over-Ethernet devices, so with the right switches they do not need a separate power supply.

“Initially we were just looking at the options, but we realised that faceplate APs were a way to avoid doing any building work, with all the paperwork that building work entails today. The physical size was the big win, but having the four-port switch as well meant all the bases were covered. We’ve seen no problems from the AP density – instead, having an AP in every room means guaranteed coverage including the hallways, plus if you lose one AP there’s adjacent coverage.”

He adds, “We built a really good relationship with Aruba, and it’s all gone really smoothly. We used our own cabling contractors for the installation, because they already knew the site and so on. All they had to do was cut the wires, crimp on an RJ45, and plug it in.

“On the surface it isn’t the cheapest route – you could probably cover the same area with far fewer big access points – but it cuts a lot of corners and saves you a lot of incidental work, so it’s probably cheaper overall. Plus, our halls of residence are never empty – during university vacations there’s conferences and so on, but five to 10 minutes to replace a faceplate we can get away with.”

UCL also needed to replace the existing network switches in its halls of residence – Turpin says some of these were over 10 years old, and of course they did not support Power-over-Ethernet. “We opted to use Aruba switches too, and then we have Aruba controllers in our data centre,” he says. This does mean having separate management interfaces for the residential Wi-Fi and the office Wi-Fi, but he says this isn’t a problem, given the high quality of the Aruba tools.

Turpin has one small regret regarding the AP93H, but says that he plans to turn even this to his advantage. The issue is that UCL has slightly older versions of the access point, each of which can only use one Wi-Fi band at a time – 2.4GHz for 802.11bg or 5GHz for 802.11a – unlike newer versions. He explains, “These APs are dual-band but you have to decide which one to use, so we interleaved them with 2.4GHz in one room, 5GHz in the next, and so on. It will be interesting to use this to do some analysis on the comparative usage levels of 2.4 and 5GHz.”

As well as restoring UCL’s competitive position on student IT services, flooding the residences with Wi-Fi will have other benefits. One is that technology-savvy students will no longer have a reason for installing their own ‘rogue’ access points, with all the security and management headaches that those can cause.

Going wireless with Aruba has also enabled UCL to update some of its other systems in very useful ways. “There is a nice Aruba feature that lets us restrict the bandwidth per room,” says Turpin. “The main problem at universities is copyright infringement and file-sharing – we already had a crude method to restrict the upload bandwidth, and that had massively reduced the problem, but now we can also limit downloads to provide a fairer sharing of the available bandwidth.

“In addition, we had a home-grown authentication system on the wired network but that was getting old. Now we use Eduroam as our main service, switching to a partnership with The Cloud during the summer vacation for conference guests. Aruba makes it easy for us to broadcast multiple SSIDs.” Eduroam is the world-wide wireless roaming service for academia.

The important question: would Turpin recommend the system to others? Absolutely, he says: “The University of London computer centre down the road is doing the same thing with Aruba – I told them it was by far the quickest and easiest way to get wireless out there.”

 

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